The friendly Thai people are pleasant and kind, but language barriers and mentality differences complicate the communication between them and tourists/foreigners. In quite a few websites, you can find conversation manuals that were allegedly meant to assist you in making the first contact – but you won’t find them here, and it’s an intentional conscious decision, since Thai is a tonal language; the same word gets an entirely different meaning when pronounced in a different tone, so a written conversation manual would be completely useless. No Thai person will get what you say, and even worse, his interpretation may be the quite the opposite of what you meant to say. There’s always that common example of a complement you want to give to a Thai woman, saying ‘you are pretty’, but when a tourist says it in the wrong tone, it means “you’re unfortunate”.
Despite the language barrier, one of the simple means to open the locals’ hearts is knowing how to greet them in Thai. Sometimes I see tourists who try to do it but fail miserably with redundant motions and exaggerated gestures. Hence, I’d like to draw some simple lines and state basic rules regarding Thai greetings and pleasantries. It will help you establish the communication properly, so the intention and meaning will be understood among locals, who will probably like you immediately.
In the western culture, when people meet, they often say hi (or greet each other using similar words) and shake hands. The Thai way of doing that is greeting the other person with Sawat-dee and bringing your hands tight together in the Wai gesture.
The Sawat-dee is the Thai word for hi/hello; it is pronounced with a slightly prolonged last syllable. You may (but don’t have to) add Sawat-dee Krap (when the greeting is said by a man) or Sawat-dee Ka (when said by a woman).
The Wai is the Thai version of the western handshake, and its gesture is known to many – placing the palms of your hands close together below the chin (at the chest area) and sometimes bowing your head as you do so. There are several types of Wai and I will review them briefly:
Wai A – Phak Taai is the least formal way, carried out among friends or as your response to a local who gave you the Wai gesture. Your palms should be tight together below the chin, at the height of the chest. There’s no need to bow your head and it’s very important to accompany the gesture with a huge smile.
Wai B – Pu-yai Wai means that you put the palms of your hands tight together as in Wai A, but lower your head until your nose touches your fingertips. This is how locals greet older or seniors, children greet parents, students greet teachers etc. There’s no need to smile in this ‘Wai’ which is more formal, denoting respect and politeness. Tourists don’t need to use it unless they meet someone of high importance.
Wai C – Wat Phra gesture is designed exclusively for monks or particularly esteemed individuals (royalty and such). Here you would bow down your head until the thumb tips touch the root of your nose (between the eyes) and there is absolutely no smile. No Thai person will greet you with such a gesture.
In conclusion: if you use the Sawat-dee greeting and Wai gesture the right way – you’ll be rewarded with a big, hearty smile and an instant click. Don’t overdo it with theatrical gestures, bow down (with your body), or do the ‘Wai’ gestures to kids or persons younger than you, unless they’ve approached you first with such gesture. Usually, wait for the local person to display the gesture first and then respond accordingly (it’s called Rap Wai – reciprocating Wai). In many cases, the lack of control in the English language will produce a compensation as the locals will be extra friendly and genuinely try to assist you.